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by Jay Privman of drf.com

Vino Rosso an emphatic winner in Breeder's Cup Classic
- HORSE RACING, ARCADIA, Calif. – There were toasts Saturday night at Santa Anita. To the victors of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and, sadly, the fallen. Raise a glass of wine, red preferably, to Vino Rosso and Mongolian Groom, who, respectively, ran the best race, and the last race, of their lives on Saturday.

A weekend that had proceeded with nary a hitch, with the sport under a microscope like never before, saw a rousing victory in the last of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races, with Vino Rosso clobbering his rivals, rolling to an emphatic 4 1/4-length victory in the $6 million Classic. It was one of the best performances of the year.

But as the celebration began near the winner’s circle, a grim scene was unfolding a furlong up the stretch, where Mongolian Groom was standing on three legs, behind a green screen, with what Dr. Scott Palmer, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, later described as “a very serious injury to his left hind ankle.” He had broken down in upper stretch after attending the pace, and was taken to Santa Anita’s on-site equine hospital, where he was euthanized.

“Can we talk tomorrow?” a shaken Enebish Ganbat, the trainer of Mongolian Groom, said Saturday night.

Safety was of the highest priority at this Breeders’ Cup. Several runners did not pass veterinary inspections this week and were withdrawn.

“It’s something we were all very concerned about coming in,” Todd Pletcher, who trains Vino Rosso, said of the attention racing has received this year. “We were hoping everything would go smoothly and safely. Everybody took every precautionary measure.”

Vino Rosso ($11.20) gave Pletcher his first win in the Classic, and it meant a lot.

“The one thing that was missing,” said Pletcher, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. “One I was wanting. It feels great.”

Vino Rosso got an ideal trip in the 1 1/4-mile race. Breaking from post 10 in the field of 11, he curled into the first turn in the three path under Irad Ortiz Jr. in fourth place, tracking War of Will, Mongolian Groom, and McKinzie. War of Will led for the first six furlongs, setting fractions of 23.09 seconds for the opening quarter, 47.16 seconds for a half-mile, and 1:10.71 for six furlongs.

As the field advanced around the far turn, Vino Rosso launched a bid that would eventually carry him to victory. War of Will gave way, and then Mongolian Groom began to drop back, at first appearing as though he was merely tiring. McKinzie, who had been forwardly placed, took the lead after a mile in 1:36.35, but Vino Rosso was quickly on him. Vino Rosso took the lead inside the eighth pole, and bounded clear.

McKinzie, favored at 5-2, finished second, 4 1/4 lengths in front of third-place Higher Power. Elate, the only female in the field, was fourth, then came, in order, Math Wizard, Seeking the Soul, Code of Honor, Yoshida, War of Will, and Owendale, who was the last runner to cross the line.

Vino Rosso completed 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track in 2:02.80.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve felt I was coming into a race of this magnitude with a horse who was doing this well,” Pletcher said. “Everything he was doing indicated he was sitting on a lifetime best performance.”

Both Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola, who co-own Vino Rosso, said they could tell from what they were hearing from Pletcher that Vino Rosso was coming up to a big race.

Because of that, “I had so much anxiety coming into the race,” Repole said.

“I was nervous, knowing he could do something special,” Repole said.

Viola said he got texts from Pletcher that were “un-Todd like.”

“I told Teresa,” he said, referring to his wife, “I think this horse is going to run a special race.”

McKinzie was second-best, giving him a record of two wins and five seconds in seven starts this year.

“I thought I had a good trip,” said his rider, Joel Rosario. “Had to use him a little down the backstretch to get my spot. But the horse who won ran right by us.”

Higher Power was anxious in the starting gate, and broke poorly for the second straight race.

“He has been acting up the last couple of times,” said his rider, Flavien Prat. “I kept him in the clear, where he was comfortable. He made a good run. But he wasn’t beating the top two anyway.”

Code of Honor struggled with the footing, according to his jockey, John Velazquez.

“First turn I was in a nice position, but he wasn’t in the bridle down the backstretch, and that’s not him,” Velazquez said. “He had a hard time with it.”

Vino Rosso most recently had crossed the wire first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup by nose over Code of Honor, only to lose the race in the stewards’ stand when ruled to have bumped Code of Honor enough to impact the order of finish. It was a decision that angered Pletcher then, and he’s still of the belief it was not justified.

“He redeemed himself, left no doubt, won authoritatively,” Pletcher said of the Classic. “That was the strongest performance we’ve seen from a horse this year.”

Vino Rosso, now age 4, was one of the better 3-year-olds of 2018, with the highlight a victory in the Wood Memorial. But he lost his next four starts, and, owing to him being a son of Curlin – with the belief he would do better as he was older – got the rest of the year off after the Travers in August 2018.

“We always felt he’d be a better 4-year-old than a 3-year-old,” Pletcher said, mirroring what Viola said he was told by J.J. Crupi back when Vino Rosso was an unraced 2-year-old. Viola, Repole, and Pletcher all saluted Crupi, who picked out Vino Rosso as a yearling and gave him his early training. Crupi died in May.

That anticipated 4-year-old campaign began in March, with a victory in the Stymie at Aqueduct. Two starts later, Vino Rosso was sent to Santa Anita for the Gold Cup, whose 1 1/4-mile distance, at this track, offered a perfect dress rehearsal for the Classic. He won the race.

“We had a blueprint in place for what worked,” Pletcher said.

Vino Rosso subsequently finished third in the Whitney, behind McKinzie and Yoshida. Pletcher decided to bypass the Woodward at the end of Saratoga, and point for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Velazquez had ridden Vino Rosso in his first 13 starts, but he had a conflict for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and opted for Code of Honor, for whom he also had been the regular rider. That’s when Ortiz picked up the mount on Vino Rosso.

The Classic was the sixth win in 15 starts for Vino Rosso, who earned $3.3 million Saturday, more than twice the $1.5 million he had made in his first 14 starts. He’s likely off to stud now, heading to Spendthrift, which also will stand Mitole, winner Saturday of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

A celebration was planned.

“We’ll have a great party tonight,” Repole said. “Some vino rosso will be drank.”

A toast to honor Mongolian Groom would be appropriate, too.

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